Eagle 3D PCBs with Alibre: Overview and Alternatives
What Is This New Series About?
I will create a 3D PCB model using Alibre Design Standard V12 from an Eagle PCB project (I will be using the FP-SMC-1 an an example).Â I will not cover every single little step in detail, but I plan on being complete and fairly detailed.
The same basic approach will also work with other MCAD programs; along the way I will include some notes about other design software.
Why Create A 3D Model?
After all, the PCB fab houses want Gerbers, not STEP files.
A mechanical model canÂ be used many ways, including:
- Checking your PCB footprints (especially if you use STEP or IGES models from the manufacturer)
- Check the mechanical layout of the PCB and the fit of the PCB into a larger mechanical system.
- As an input to simulation software, including thermal modeling.
- To create a beautiful, accurate rendering of your PCB.
- I will not be covering this.Â In fact, Alibre Design Standard does not include photo-realistic renderings; you have to have Design Professional or Expert.
Why Not Create a 3D Model?
Creating a model can take a lot of time, although once you’re experienced and have models for all your common parts, the time should be reasonable.
If you want to be able to share your results widely (e.g. export to STEP files), it will cost some money for the necessary MCAD software.
Spending more money can save a lot of time; for example, if you create your parts correctly, you can use the Eagle 3D ULP to create IDF files representing your board and its components.Â Then using even more expensive MCAD software (such as SolidWorks + CircuitWorks), the MCAD software will use the information in the IDF files to automatically create a board model.
Since life isn’t perfect, the board might need some tweaking.Â Also, I’ve read that Eagle’s IDF output sometimes needs some tweaking before the MCAD program likes it.
There are at least two programs for creating PCBs in Alibre using IDF files:
If you are creating a lot of PCBs at work, I would highly recommend looking at these programs.
What If I Just Want A Pretty Picture?
There are at least two free options for photo-realistic renderings with Eagle PCB:
- The original Eagle 3D project which uses POV-Ray.
- The new Eagle’up project which uses Google Sketchup.
There are some disadvantages to these programs:
- They are not useful for mechanical engineering (using the board as part of a larger MCAD model)
- They do not have large part libraries, and the companies that do provide 3D models typically use STEP, IGES, or Acrobat 3D.
- However, some file translation could help.Â For example, if you can convert a STEP file into STL (which CoCreate PE can do for free IIRC), you can try using the STL to POV conversion utility for Eagle 3D.Â You should be able to do something similar with Sketchup.
Why Alibre Design and Eagle PCB?
The short answer: because I have them and like them.Â Both programs are reasonably affordable, and fairly popular.Â I’d be happy to write about all the other options if I was well paid to do it!
What Are Some Alibre/Eagle Limitations?
So far I have found a few:
- Alibre Design Standard does not do photo-realistic renderings
- I have not been able to get Alibre Design to handle PCB traces so far; I can’t extrude them (as produced by the current DXF exporter) and I can’t overlay them.
- This could make it harder to model SMT PCBs; on through hole PCBs, it’s obvious where the parts go.
- Alibre Design Personal Edition (PE) is not usable, since it cannot import STEP files; the cheapest options are either Alibre Design Professional (about $500) or trying to see if you can still grab a copy of Alibre Design Standard (e.g. Novedge still lists it for $185)
Are There Other Affordable Options?
If you want to create a solid model that you can export in STEP format, only other MCAD choice I know of that’s under $1000 and might work well is VariCAD.Â The other choices have various limitations, which I might discuss in another blog post.
Or you could use different PCB design software; some programs will do at least some 3D modeling.Â For example, there is Altium at the higher end (about $4,000) and Target 3001 at the lower end.Â KiCAD (open source) has some sort of 3D capability.
Target 3001 does look interesting, since prices range from free to about 3,000 euros, and it can export to STEP files.Â Sometime in the not too distant future I hope to take a look at it.